Ten Principles of Compassionate Education

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This book is dedicated to the young men and women with whom I shared my classroom. I am forever grateful for their willingness to lend me — and, more importantly, one another — their ears, hearts, and minds. Thank you.

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Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

- Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from "Song of the Open Road"

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One — The most important value in my classroom is humanity – honoring every individual’s inherent worth, unique selection of talents, and yet-to-be-realized potential. By upholding this value, my students and I remain dignity-driven.

Two — In my classroom, we are all people first. We are students and a teacher, second. If we lose sight of this essential dynamic, we must pause, reflect, and re-assess. Our respective roles drive our collaboration — but they do not dictate it.

Three — Despite the discomfort that it causes, I sometimes allow myself to be vulnerable because I want my students to feel safe to be themselves. I carefully lower my teacher’s mask at times, so that they may trust me enough to share what is real.

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Four — My students and I practice listening before speaking, because reasoned voices are more effective than reactionary ones. By doing so we learn that compassionate leaders are servants before they are guides, and that they exhibit humility — not hubris.

Five — My students’ creativity and my own are exercised regularly, so we feel justified in taking calculated risks. Occasionally, failure results. More often, though, we succeed because fostering creativity leads us to be flexible, adaptable, and always curious.

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Six — I invite others’ diverse ideas and opinions because the opposite signifies ignorance, and that is anathema to teaching and learning. At times of impasse, we can agree to disagree – a mature sign of respect. Intimidation, however, is forbidden; it breaches our shared humanity and violates the principle that we are all people first.

Seven — My students are not common, and neither are their futures. They are unique and evolving. Consequently, my instruction, classroom activities, and assessments are not common. Instead, they are innovative, rigorous, and customized to my students’ changing needs. As a professional educator, I am well-trained for fulfilling this responsibility.

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Eight — My classroom is expansive enough to hold a broad range of ideas, but one concept that has no place inside its walls is shame. Feeling disconnected, flawed, or lesser are not acceptable where we teach and learn. Each one of us is a part of our community, and my students and I watch vigilantly to ensure that no one feels apart.

Nine — As a teacher who earned an advanced degree in his content area and accumulated many years of experience, I make no apologies for my deeply-held beliefs about education. My convictions are strong. But they are also supple: they evolve in response to my students’ needs, my colleagues’ insights, and my ongoing education.

Ten — Service is my calling, and teaching is my art and science. But if I can no longer uphold humanity as the core value in my classroom – if data is privileged above dignity, and policies supplant people — then it is time to straighten the desks, push in the chairs, and turn off the lights. The open road extends beyond, and I will find my students there.

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“In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.” [Emphasis is my own.]

— Parker J. Palmer, PhD, The Courage to Teach (2007), p. 4


About the Author

A former high-school English teacher of 15 years, Brian is now designing the next phase of his career — or what he thinks of as Plan B. In the meantime, he works as a tutor and writing consultant at Bishop Writing Services, LLC, and he shares his photography and writing on the blog ink + sky. Brian’s former students, who are now out forging their own paths in the world, are never far from his mind. And he hopes that they are making every day count.


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Succeed by defying conventions

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On November 28, Freakonomics Radio released its 359th episode, “Should America Be Run by…Trader Joe’s?” Hosted by astute journalist and author Stephen Dubner, the 47-minute radio show (and podcast) explores the unanticipated success of perhaps the most non-traditional grocer in the current marketplace: the quirky, island-themed Trader Joe’s.

Even if you do not have a location near you — or if you do, but are not a frequent customer — great insight can be gleaned from this podcast. Why? The episode dives into the reasons why defying conventions can yield unexpected success, especially at a time when it seems that the default narratives for advancement have been so carefully refined that challenging their veracity seems not only foolish, but heretical.

However, by veering from the status quo, Trader Joe’s has become America’s most successful grocery chain as measured by sales-per-square-foot. Its revenue in this regard is far greater than industry titans like Kroger, Albertsons, and Publix. Trader Joe’s generates even more revenue — again, based on sales-per-square-foot — than Whole Foods, whose stores tend to be found in the nation’s most wealthy communities.

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If you have never been to a Trader Joe’s, you may be wondering exactly how it defies the traditional narrative of business success. Well, here is a glimpse at its peculiarities, which Stephen Dubner — and guests like the remarkable Columbia Business School economist Sheena Iyengar* — explore in this episode:

  • TJ’s does not use social media.
  • TJ’s does not employ traditional advertising like billboards or weekly circulars.
  • TJ’s does not accept coupons.
  • TJ’s does not distribute loyalty cards that track customers’ purchases.
  • TJ’s does not have sales.
  • TJ’s does not feature self-check aisles.
  • TJ’s does not offer home delivery.
  • TJ’s does not contain 20,000+ products like most grocery stores.
  • TJ’s does not rely on name brands. In fact, it carries very few.

How can a company like Trader Joe’s succeed when it does not utilize the cutting-edge, data-driven strategies that most business experts would say are necessary? You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out! Just click: “Should America Be Run…by Trader Joe’s?”

But here is the short answer: Trader Joe’s proudly does things its own way, without apology. It privileges people over profits, simplicity over complexity, and language and narrative over data and demographics. Consequently, its loyal shoppers love the experience that they have in its stores, and savor the unique products — from healthy to indulgent — that they find there. Thus they keep coming back.

Full disclosure: I visit Trader Joe’s semi-regularly, but I am not a purist. The narrow aisles of my local store are often crowded, and the checkout lanes seem oddly-designed and not (in my opinion) customer-friendly. Yet I still love this podcast episode because I admire companies like Trader Joe’s that defy conventions, follow their own guiding principles, and — as a result — achieve unexpected success. We need more risk-takers who are willing to challenge norms, whether those established practices dominate behavior in the business world, in our schools, or in our neighborhoods.

Shameless endorsement of all things Freakonomics: I am a committed follower of Freakonomics, both the podcast and the series of books penned by Dubner and his collaborator, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. For several years I have listened to their weekly audio productions, which help me — a former high-school English teacher — better understand topics ranging from entrepreneurs and marketing, to decision-making and leadership, to sports and public policy. But perhaps most importantly, Freakonomics’ media has taught me why asking questions is an essential yet often underrated practice, both in business and in a broader whole-life context.

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– Widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on decision making, Sheena Iyengar is amazing. She is a professor at the Columbia Business School, and her research has yielded incredible insights into how humans make choices. Moreover, her voice is captivating and articulate; and her outlooks on business and life are shrewd, witty, and wise. Oh — and Ms. Iyengar has spent her life defying conventions. How? She is blind. See for yourself, in her popular 2010 TED talk, “The Art of Choosing.”

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Note – The images featured above were obtained from WNYC Studios (which produces a host of award-winning programs including Freakonomics Radio), TED.com, and the Freakonomics website.

Fred Rogers: Leading by Listening

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“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

Fred Rogers (1928-2003), The World According to Mr. Rogers (2003)

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“But part of Fred Rogers’ genius was knowing that kids have an insatiable desire to make sense of the world. Unlike too many adults who prefer to deal with problems by pretending they don’t exist, children want answers. If answers aren’t available, they at least want their questions taken seriously.” 

–  Dr. Bruce Weinstein, CEO of the Institute for High-Character Leadership

Source text: “How Mister Rogers Can Make You a More Effective Leader” in Forbes.com

For more about Fred Rogers, please see Fred Rogers Productions.

Timeless Advice: Letters to a Young Poet

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Even if you believe that poetry is irrelevant, value can be found in reflecting on the thoughts that legendary German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) shared with a struggling young officer cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus over one hundred years ago.

By relying on letters exchanged periodically, the two maintained a relationship as mentor and pupil that stretched from 1903 to 1908. Nine of Rilke’s earliest letters to the younger man — who was studying at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (in north-east Austria) — are collected here in a slender volume by translator M.D. Herter Norton. The book is a beautiful one, whose elegant yet straightforward typeface and high-quality paper reflect the elder poet’s sensibilities.

The contemplative lyric poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

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Franz Kappus initiated the dialogue, having studied Rilke’s poetry as a teenager. Looking back on their exchange of letters, Kappus wrote in 1929: “Not yet twenty, and close on the threshold of a profession which I felt to be entirely contrary to my inclination, I hoped to find understanding” (p. 12). The first letter that Kappus received in response to his solicitations was penned by a 28-year old Rilke, who was himself struggling with forces that tested his faith and resolve. And it is in this fact — that the mentor, too, was facing his own difficult road — that perhaps the most valuable insights into Rilke’s letters can be found.

For Rilke was aware that he was extending advice to a man less than ten years his junior, and he [Rilke] was not immune to the very fears, uncertainties, and obstacles that young Franz Kappus was grappling with. What follows are some of my favorite passages, excerpted in chronological order from several of the book’s nine letters. May you, too, find a gentle reassurance in Rilke’s selfless offerings.

From April 23, 1903

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From July 16, 1903 (perhaps the most-quoted letter) —

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Also from the July 16th letter

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From December 23, 1903

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From August 12, 1904

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A second excerpt from August 12, and another of Rilke’s most quoted prose passages —

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Your path? It’s not what you expect.

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“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), American mythologist and Professor of Literature; author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)

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Note — These images were obtained from the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.

Habits — with author James Clear

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This afternoon I finished listening to Rich Roll’s interview with entrepreneur and author James Clear, and I was impressed. Actually, I was surprised and impressed. So much so that I am recommending the podcast — which is available in video form on YouTube here — because I believe it will be worth your time if you are trying to either establish good habits or break bad ones.

A regular follower of Rich Roll’s weekly podcast, I listened to a preview of his interview with James Clear last week. It was there that I learned that Clear was being featured as an expert on the topic of habits. Never having heard of the man, I searched the web for details about his education but could find nothing — no evidence of a Ph.D., university affiliation, or history of peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Having read enough books about psychology to know that it is not a field where one can make casual claims, I was suspicious of Clear’s authority on the subject of behavior change. My suspicions deepened when I learned that his new (and only) book is entitled Atomic Habits (2018).

As an English teacher, I can’t imagine any relationship between the words atomic and habits that seems reasonable. After all, atomic most frequently precedes either bombs or energy. And habits seem to have nothing to do with cataclysmic warheads or slamming tiny particles together to produce usable energy. Why didn’t James Clear choose a more authoritative — or at least serious — adjective for his first book? Like strategic or formidable or purpose-driven. Even Life-changing Habits would suggest content that is substantive rather than sensational.

For me, Atomic Habits sounds like a title that a motivational speaker would sell — not an educated investigator who had spent years delving into the science behind motivation, decision making, and cognitive processing. And in order to take Rich Roll’s interview seriously, I was really hoping for the latter. That’s what I thought before I started listening several days ago. Thankfully, I learned that my doubts were largely (though not entirely*) unfounded.

Yes, the title of James Clear’s book still feels like an odd choice. But the man who wrote it seems legitimate even though he has not earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Clear has a passion for understanding the human condition, and he appears to have done his homework. In fact, only several minutes into the interview he references author Charles Duhigg, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Before Duhigg transitioned into long-form non-fiction, he was a respected reporter for the New York Times. In 2012 he wrote The Power of Habit, a brilliant behavioral analysis that features over 60 pages of source notes. As an investigator and a writer, Duhigg is The Real Deal. I highly recommend his book, which I own and have read thoroughly. That’s my stack of hand-written notes next to it.

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Anyway, Rich Roll’s interview with James Clear is very engaging; I learned a number of strategies and perspectives (ways of thinking differently, you might say) that I can immediately implement to encourage the formation of better habits and begin the disassembly of poor ones. For instance, Clear advocates rehearsing the first two minutes of any behavior that you’d like to become a routine. How can two minutes possibly make a meaningful difference? Consider the following example:

Let’s say you’d like to improve your health by taking several 30-minute walks each week. In order to engage in this low-impact exercise, you must first put on the proper socks and shoes, grab your keys, put on your jacket, and walk out the door. Clear asserts that if you move methodically through that two-minute routine several times each week — from opening your sock drawer to locking the front door behind you — that you will ingrain the habit of setting off with intention. Remember: if you won’t step out onto the porch, you can’t take a long walk. Therefore, the most important part of this fledgling habit is arguably its first two minutes.

Obviously, you can’t return to the warm comforts of your family room after this two-minute scenario and expect to see any health gains. So on several of those evenings you continue beyond the two minutes and complete your 30-minute walk. As a consequence of this sustained effort, positive health results will slowly begin manifesting. Meanwhile, the two-minute rehearsals that occur on the evenings that do not extend to the half-hour walk will add value because they perpetuate the habit of getting you out the door. And Clear believes that what prevents most people from establishing positive habits is that they don’t have the discipline to simply begin the process.

Having not read (or even seen firsthand) Clear’s book, I remain cautious in my endorsement of his scholarship. That is why the asterisk* appears in the fourth paragraph. But I am confident in recommending Rich Roll’s interview with this first-time author. Their conversation is very engaging, and I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the insights that Clear offers as well as most of the well-reasoned answers that he provides to Roll’s questions. Consider giving it a listen, or watching it on YouTube.  Links are featured above. And if you choose to read Atomic Habits, please let me know your thoughts!

Note — The image at the beginning of this post was obtained from Rich Roll’s website.

Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” is here!

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The latest book by renowned social worker Brené Brown is now available. Dare to Lead, which is the sixth title published by the respected University of Houston researcher and ground-breaking TED speaker, is likely to receive both scholarly and popular praise.

Brené-Brown-approved2-photo-by-Maile-WilsonDr. Brown, who is the author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers, has pioneered a new understanding of the roles of vulnerability and shame in the human condition. Her writing — which draws on decades of research largely conducted via personal interviews — has positively impacted thousands of readers from all walks of life.

Please see Brene Brown’s website for more details about Dare to Lead. It is sure to be an informative and inspiring read, especially for those interested in the culture of leadership that exists at their workplace, church, non-profit, or community organization. Amazon reviews of the book can be found here.

Note — The images featured in this post were obtained from Brené Brown’s website.